Ma Ma’s Magic

Grandma’s visits got off to a turbulent start, but then became a joy for the whole family, writes Patricia Tan.

The second bedroom in our squeezy unit has always been known as ‘Ma Ma’s room’. Our boys, aged two and four, live in a transient state; the youngest sleeps on a mattress on our bedroom floor, the oldest camps out in the living area. Their chests of drawers are jammed between the computer and the dining table, and toys are stacked precariously in the hallway.

Yet we keep Ma Ma’s double bed, wardrobe and flat-screen television in the other bedroom untouched, like a shrine. The boys often wander in and look around excitedly, as if expecting her to jump from behind the clothes rack, before asking me plaintively, “When is Ma Ma coming back?”

How lonely and scary the world seemed when we returned from the maternity ward four years ago. My husband and I had lived in this city for less than a year and didn’t have any close friends nearby. I had also recently severed ties with my parents; I wanted to ensure my children would never suffer the same abuse that had been inflicted on my sister and me. I expected my sister, of all people, to understand and support my decision. I’d even moved so we could live in the same city and be a family for each other. Instead, she accused me of wrongdoing and turned her back on me, leaving me staggering.

The endless blur of feeding, burping, rocking, bathing, nappy-changing, sterilising and washing seemed overwhelming for two sleep-deprived, jittery new parents with only time for toast, noodles and coffee. But with my side of the family out of the picture, friends scattered in other cities, and my husband’s family overseas, where was our support network?

My mother-in-law arrived when our first son was three weeks old. She was sweet and kind, and it was a relief to see her standing on our doorstep. But that feeling soon vanished. Ma Ma (Cantonese for paternal grandmother) continually criticised my husband and me about the way we held the baby and how tightly we fastened his nappy. Apparently we made his bathwater too cold, pushed his pram too quickly and dressed him too slowly. And when I breastfed, Ma Ma would hover nearby and suddenly holler “Wake up!” to ensure her grandson didn’t miss out on a full feed.

I spent my days trembling with anger, and my husband argued with her constantly. It was hard to convince a woman who’d raised three of her own children and helped care for three other grandchildren, that novices like us knew what we were doing. She was also homesick and lonely. There was so much tension, so many hard feelings. When she disappeared through the airport departure gates, my husband and I popped the champagne.

Over the past four years, Ma Ma has stayed with us six times, each trip lasting roughly three months (the length of her tourist visa). Although we initially had doubts about asking her to return, we realised we needed extra help and had no-one else to turn to. Maybe it just took time for all of us to grow accustomed to living together. Maybe she was finally convinced we were capable parents, after noticing that her healthy grandchildren had grown taller in between her visits. Maybe it’s because her favourite niece began studying here, or because she now had regular chats with the local butcher. Whatever the reason, Ma Ma’s nagging subsided, and the atmosphere in our home became more genial with each passing trip. She is now the heart of our support network, despite the fact she lives in another country.

The months she spends here give ample time for the boys to bond with her. The spare room comes alive again with laughter as Ma Ma lets them dance on her bed. Only Ma Ma takes them on adventures to the Chinese grocery store, leading them through the crowded aisles to hunt for gooey, sweet biscuits. Only Ma Ma lets them sit on her long legs, lifting them up and down as if she’s a human seesaw. Sometimes her presence seems to trigger a leap forward in the boys’ development. After many frustrating months of stalled toilet training, our oldest child finally gave up wearing his bedtime nappy as soon as she arrived for her most recent stay with us. Both children start using new words when they’re around her and dare to try foods she cooks, foods I’ve had no luck getting them to eat.

Her presence also does wonders for my husband and me. The housework and childcare is so much easier divided among three people. Ma Ma is endlessly patient and gentle with her grandchildren, and is the only babysitter I trust implicitly, allowing my partner and me to indulge in frequent, worry-free date nights. I feel a glowing sense of pride whenever she laughs with joy as the boys grow taller, take their first steps or learn new songs. It’s wonderful having another trustworthy relative to whom I can show off my children.

The impact she has had on our family is most apparent during her months away. Every day the boys tell me, “I miss Ma Ma”. Sometimes we’ve just settled them into the car when they declare sadly, “I wish Ma Ma was here,” as if the family outing is incomplete without her. It’s heartbreaking whenever one of the boys wakes up at night and calls out for her. We try to relieve the pain of separation by gathering around the speaker-phone and having raucous, animated conversations with her every other evening. We email family photos, and on birthdays she sends boxes filled with toys and clothes.

I’m envious of friends with dependable family members close by who can help out at a moment’s notice. The three days a week my four year old spends at day care is the only other support we have. It’s particularly hard to cope without my mother-in-law when I’m very sick, or when my husband and I just want to take a break and enjoy an evening out.

Sometimes I wonder about the future: when Ma Ma is older, slows down, and perhaps doesn’t feel up to travelling any more. When both the boys go to school, find hobbies, spend more time with their friends and don’t require the exhausting, relentless supervision infants need, will we see less of her? Will she have less of an impact on our lives?

My hopes are summed up best in the words of my oldest son. The time has come to find a larger home so our children can finally have their own room. Our four year old, unburdened by inflated property prices, told his grandmother where she fitted in his grand plans: “Ma Ma, I’m going to buy the biggest house in the world and lock you inside, so you’ll be here forever!”

Illustrations by Bronwyn Seedeen